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Greensboro center-city park gets input from public

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Park design pondered with input from public

2-26-04

By Jim Schlosser Staff Writer

News & Record

GREENSBORO -- Residents want the planned Center City Park to be calm and passive -- with quiet places where they can read a book or enjoy a quiet bag lunch. But at the same time, they don't want the park to be as dead as a library reading room.

They also desire a water feature in the park, but aren't sure what kind. They want the park to have sculpture, and prefer the kind children can play on rather than traditional statues or monuments. They want food service, perhaps in the form of a snack bar but definitely not a push-cart vendor. They prefer a park with greenery and shade over concrete.

They want fixed park benches instead of lightweight chairs that can be moved and rearranged. This finding brings a frown to the face of Ray Gibbs, president of the non-profit Downtown Greensboro Inc., which is overseeing the park planning.

"A chair like the one out there,'' says Gibbs nodding at a folding single seat chair in his office lobby, "costs $25 and that includes shipping.''

He then points to a photo of a heavy, park bench and says, "it costs $1,000 and doesn't include installation.''

At a public gathering at the Greensboro Historical Museum Wednesday afternoon, Gibbs and members of the park planning committee discussed design suggestions gathered from months of contacts with civic groups, downtown workers, people who use the YMCA and YWCA and people who come downtown at night for entertainment and dining.

Those interviewed were shown large poster boards containing side-by-side photos of contrasting urban park scenes and asked which they liked best. For example, when shown a photo of a lone student studying in a small, terraced amphitheater on the N.C. State campus, 64.7 percent said they preferred it over the adjacent photo of a crowded park in Paris.

Gibbs says the committee will spend the next month interpreting the findings and refining them by conducting focus groups. At the same time, about 60 design firms will be asked to submit qualifications.

About five firms will be chosen for interviews, Gibbs says. From those, an attempt will be made to find one whose style best lends itself to designing a park like what Greensboro residents say they want. Designers who stress cleverness of design over function need not apply.

"We want a park that people like and enjoy, not just something that looks good,'' Gibbs says. "A lot of parks have won design awards but no one uses them. They are cold and barren.''

The design must address and accommodate seeming contradictions in the responses that Gibbs and others gathered. For instance, those who prefer a passive park, where they can get away from the madding crowd, say they also want art exhibits, musical concerts and other activities that draw crowds.

Flexibility will be the key, Gibbs says. A water display, for example, could be turned off and the space become a stage for a play or musical performance.

A temporary park, with seating, gravel paths, a patio area and trees, is evolving on the 2-acre site, a block bounded by East Friendly Avenue, North Elm and North Davie streets and the Renaissance Plaza office building. By summer, the temporary park will offer a wireless capability to those who want to bring laptops and do work outdoors.

In the weeks ahead, Gibbs will try out in the park different kinds of chairs and outdoor furniture, including what is in his office lobby. He doesn't accept the finding that people prefer heavy unmovable outdoor furniture versus moveable pieces. He found that most who voiced this preference based it on the belief that people would steal moveable furniture.

Gibbs has gathered statistics showing that of the several hundred moveable chairs in New York's popular Bryant Park, an average of 20 are stolen annually. Some urban parks report no thefts of lightweight chairs. Gibbs likes moveable chairs and tables because they allow groups to arrange them to suit their needs.

Counting land acquisition and demolishing a row of buildings along North Elm Street, the park will cost about $12 million when completed in 2005. The money is being raised by Action Greensboro, a nonprofit that promotes community projects, including a new downtown baseball stadium, to keep the city attractive to new businesses, industries and young professionals.

If 2 acres for a park seem small, Gibbs says the space equals that of the largest square in Savannah, Ga., and is only slightly smaller than Manhattan's Bryant Park.

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